Take notes when (and as) you do things and keep them

December 29, 2015

One of the lessons that I have been learning over and over again over time and in different contexts is that I should take notes about what I'm doing and then keep them. As you can tell I've written before about this in various specific contexts, but I keep not entirely learning and writing down the general lesson, which is that this is a good idea basically all the time. Really, there are very few situations where taking good notes and then keeping them is not a good idea.

So that is my big piece of advice:

Take notes as you do things and then keep them after you're done, even if you don't think you're going to want them later.

(Like all general pieces of advice there are all sorts of specific exceptions.)

Fortunately I mostly haven't learned this the hard way. I've tended to write things down as I was doing them just to keep track of where I was (as I get interrupted by moths) and I'm naturally a packrat with files, so I've wound up keeping all of these notes files. Where I have learned the hard way is in how much detail I've often (not) put in many of those notes. Unless I thought I was writing them for my future self (which I knew I was in a few cases), I tended to only put down what I needed at the time to jog my current memory. This is of course far less than what I wound up wanting much later when I was trying to remember what exactly I'd done and precisely what the results were.

(Having stubbed my toes on this, I now try to include the specific command lines, exact output, and so on instead of just writing general notes. My co-workers periodically asking me for specifics has also helped a bunch; there is nothing like other people for showing you your own blind spots.)

There are some things I do that are too small for notes, of course, but certainly anything that takes me more than an hour or two should have notes, regardless of what it is. Regardless of whether it was looking into some issue, working out where information was, testing something, making some change, or so on, sooner or later I'm probably going to want to do something like it again or at least look back at what I did and what I saw.

(And even if I don't think I'm ever going to need what I'm doing again, well, writing things down is relatively cheap and not writing them down can be very annoying, as I keep reminding myself when I write some entries here. It's better to err on the side of writing too much down and then having to search through it later.)

Written on 29 December 2015.
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Last modified: Tue Dec 29 02:08:54 2015
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